For four months, Mary Kitzmann was repeatedly harassed for a debt she didn't owe by representatives of Allied Interstate, one of the nation's largest debt collection agencies. "In dozens of phone calls, they said I owed Sears for a credit card I had closed years earlier, and had been paid in full," she says. Each time, the 63-year-old Alexandria, Minn., resident tried to explain the debt wasn't hers — the alleged debtor had a different name and she had proof from Sears she owed nothing.
"But they were very belligerent," recalls Kitzmann.
After three years of making similar calls to others, Allied Interstate has agreed to pay $1.75 million to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission that it broke federal law in trying to collect debts from the wrong people — and routinely ignoring their protests without checking the accuracy of their claims. According to the charges, company reps used abusive language and false threats of arrest, and violated federal law by improperly revealing alleged debts to friends and associates of the complainants.
Although the company admits to no wrongdoing, "we regret the inconvenience caused to any consumer as a result of this," says spokesman Robert Burke.
You have rights: If you don't want a debt collector to continue to contact you, send a letter noting that by certified mail — with a return receipt to prove it was received.
You should ask debt collectors to send you a written notice detailing the debt within five days of the initial contact. This notice must include the name of the creditor and how to proceed if you believe you don't owe money.
Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues.